Artifact Corner: Ink and Inkwells

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at two ink wells from the 19th Century. These two pieces would be considered traveling ink wells given their small size. They would be easy to pack and travel with. Both are made of dark hardwoods. The first is made of walnut, with a glass liner to hold the ink. The second is also a dark hardwood, with a mother of pearl disc set in the center of the topper. The second one is missing the glass lining on the interior. This is unsurprising, as the glass liners can often fall out and break. Let’s take a look at the fascinating history of ink!

So, what is ink? Ink is made by taking something to create the color, and mixing it with an oil that would allow the color to blend nicely and adhere to the surface that was being written on. Ink for writing was developed by both the Egyptians and the Chinese at roughly the same time, about 4,500 years ago. The Egyptians would make their ink by blending charcoal with a type of oil. This is why most inks you see from this time period were black in color. Most Egyptian writings have black text for the body of the document, with red ink for the headers or key words. Charcoal and other carbon based inks were inexpensive to make, and made them fairly accessible. Other colors were harder to come by, and therefore used sparingly. The Egyptians used reeds that they carved a stylus on the end of as their pens. The Chinese also used carbon based dyes. They typically mixed the dye with an animal glue and sometimes even added incense or other scents to the ink. The mixture would be dried into sticks. Some of these sticks could be elaborately decorated, as we see here. The stick would be ground against an ink stone, and then a small amount of water would be mixed into it. The ink would then be applied to paper with an ink brush.

By the Middle Ages, the scribes and scholars were looking for ways to improve the ink they used. In this time there were dozens of recipes for what was known as iron gall ink. An iron gall is formed when a gall wasp lays it’s eggs in the bud of an oak tree. A round gall will form around larva, and when the wasp is ready, it will bore a hole in the gall and fly away. The gall is now ready for harvesting. The gall contains tannic acid which when combined with iron sulfate creates a strong black pigment. The only downside to this ink is that is is corrosive, and over time can eat through the paper it is written on. If you’d like to try your hand at making gall ink here is a 13th Century recipe for ink made with gall nuts:

Preparation time: Approximately three days.
1. Take a pot and fill it with eight pounds of rainwater.
2. Add half a pound of small gallnuts and crush them.
3. Put the pot on the fire and boil until the water with the gallnuts is reduced by half.
4. Take three ounces of gum arabic and grind it.
5. Add the gum to the mixture.
6. Boil until reduced by half again and remove the pot from the fire.
7. In a separate pot, take four ounces of vitriol and one pound of warm wine and mix them.
8. Add the mixture little by little to the ink while stirring.
9. Leave to rest for two days.
10. After the two days, stir the ink everyday four times with a stick.

Modern inks have actually transitioned a bit back to it’s early roots. Today the primary pigmentation is also a carbon (or soot) based colorant. Unlike the earliest inks, today we have a bunch of additives in the ink we use, including drying agents. Our ink wells are in very good condition. The wood has developed a nice patina from being handled for over one hundred years. We are so lucky to have these beautiful pieces in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,